I’m fortunate to have never known death. All my relatives, the ones I’ve met, anyway, are still living, as are all my friends. That doesn’t mean I’m unfamiliar with ghosts.
One year, when I was young, my parents went away for a week. I stayed with a friend from school, named Jake. He lived alone with his dad.
I said I never knew anyone who died, and that’s certainly true. I didn’t know Jake’s mom. I knew she existed, and I might have seen her from time to time picking up Jake from school, but that was it. I’d never even been to Jake’s house until that week.
It was Jake who first suggested it. That night, my mom called his dad, and they made arrangements. Jake’s dad wasn’t very keen on the idea, but he finally gave in, no doubt thanks to Jake’s whining voice. A few weeks later, I was staring after the retreating license plate of my parents’ car.
“Have you told your friend about the rule?” asked Jake’s dad as we stood on the front porch.
Jake turned to me. “We have a rule here. There’s a certain door in the house—you’ll know it when you see it—that we’re never supposed to open.”
“That’s just how things are here,” Jake’s dad said. “Now, who’s hungry?”
I spent the evening playing video games with Jake. We heard his dad go to bed around ten, but we stayed up. It was a Friday night, so we could sleep in the next morning. Nevertheless, by midnight Jake couldn’t keep his eyes open, and he passed out on the floor.
Now I was alone. Not the least bit tired, I kept playing. The light from the T.V. screen scorched my eyes, and the rest of the room seemed darker by comparison. When the noises started, I assumed they were coming from the game and ignored them. Midnight turned to one, and my eyes started to feel heavy. I finally switched off the console, and that’s when I realized the thumping noises were coming from somewhere else.
It couldn’t have been Jake, because I could see him asleep on the floor. It wasn’t his dad, either, because I could hear him snoring in the next room.
I wasn’t a very respectful child. I definitely got my fair share of time outs and slapped wrists—and probably deserved a few more—but I was also thick-headed and never learned. Curiosity got the better of me. I retrieved a flashlight from my backpack, then headed out to investigate.
The sounds became clearer as I progressed. At first I’d thought the thumping was footsteps, but it was too hollow and didn’t have the right rhythm. I followed the glowing circle carved by my flashlight as it led me through the house, revealing just a tiny slice at a time. Around that circle, the darkness looked solid. The illusion took hold of my body, and I felt like I was swimming through thick, black water. I could feel it filling my nose with each breath and trickling into my ears.
The thumping got louder, and I found myself before a door. I remembered what Jake and his dad had said. This was definitely the door they’d been talking about. But as I mentioned, I was never very good at obeying orders. I tried the knob, which resisted me at first, then turned with more noise than I’d have liked. The door fell open to reveal—nothing.
My flashlight cast its beam into emptiness. No floor, no walls. No matter which way I pointed it, it illuminated nothing. I reached a tentative foot forward, found something solid, and stepped into the room. I felt dizzy. It was impossible to get my bearings; the room might have flipped around, and I might’ve been walking on the ceiling for all I knew.
I realized then that the noises I’d been following had stopped. I shone my light to the right and to the left—or was it left then right? I’d gotten so turned around. In this darkness, there was no left, right, up, or down. There was no motion, no stillness. Nothing but…well, nothing.
Not entirely true. There was a subtle pressure, not a physical feeling, but the prickling caress of a strange gaze.
“Hello?” I called.
I thought I called. My mouth opened, I felt air escape my lungs, but no sound. My free hand went reflexively to my throat as my eyes widened. They hurt, my eyes, from staring at such bleak emptiness for so long. My heart beat faster, my lungs sucked air in and out. Still, I couldn’t hear anything. I stomped a foot on the invisible floor. Nothing. Not even the rush of my own blood.
I really felt like I was walking upside-down now. The room, although I couldn’t see it, was spinning around me, and my flashlight beam spun with it. The small device had a mind of its own, and that mind had snapped, desperate to fulfill its purpose, to find something to illuminate.
The beam suddenly lanced back at me, bent by some unfathomable force. My eyes were seared by the brightness. Tears came quickly, and through them, swimming toward me in a fog, was a figure—
“What’re you doing?”
I was grabbed from behind and twisted around, and there was Jake’s dad. He snatched my flashlight and clicked it off, then dragged me away by the arm. “I told you not to go in there,” he growled.
“I had to use the bathroom,” I lied as I stumbled behind him. “I got lost.”
“If I ever catch you in there again,” he went on as if I hadn’t said anything, “I’ll call your parents. Don’t think I won’t!” We reached Jake’s room and he threw me inside. “Now get back to sleep. I’ll know if you try sneaking off again.”
It’s funny how the transition from night to day can change a mind. I could hear the sun rays laughing at me as they streamed through Jake’s window that morning. A mirror. That’s what I must have discovered in the dark—a reflection. Everything else I attributed to my sleepiness and unfamiliarity with the house.
Jake hadn’t woken yet. The only other conscious soul in the house was his dad, who had just locked himself in the bathroom. He hadn’t returned my flashlight last night. After witnessing his anger, I didn’t dare ask him about it. Instead, I snuck into his bedroom while he showered.
My flashlight was perched on the corner of his dresser. I grabbed it, eager to get out of the room before he finished his shower, but something caught my eye. Underneath all the other junk on the dresser was a newspaper. I cleared some stuff away and found, on top of the paper, some old photos. Jake was in a few of them, as was his dad, but his mom was in all of them.
I barely recognized her. Like I said earlier, I’d only ever caught brief glimpses of her at school. I didn’t think she was very pretty, but not really ugly either. All the photos were from picnics or parties or other happy gatherings. After glancing through them, I moved on to the newspaper.
It was from the day Jake’s mom died.
In our small town, it had been a big story. Jake’s mom got more than an obituary; she made the front page. There weren’t any pictures of her, just a big one of Jake and his dad looking shocked and tired outside the house. There was no color, but Jake’s dad’s shirt had a big dark stain on the front.
I heard the water shut off, and quickly shoved things around on the dresser to hide the fact that I’d been snooping. By the time Jake’s dad got out of the bathroom, I was safely in the kitchen pouring cereal.
Jake and I spent the day playing, not getting into too much trouble. I tried to avoid his dad. Whenever he looked at me I got a bad feeling. His eyes were full of suspicion, and I could tell he didn’t like having me around.
Shortly after supper, the phone rang. After answering it and hanging up, Jake’s dad turned to us and said, “That was the neighbor. Needs help throwing out some old furniture.” Then he stared directly at me, cold and hard. “I know you went into my room this morning.”
I nodded. I could tell by the look in his eye there was no point trying to deny it.
“I know whenever you sneak around,” he continued. “While I’m gone, you’re to stay put, understand? I’ll know.” He kept one eye fixed on me until he left.
I was obedient at first. Jake and I went to his room to play video games, and for a while I didn’t even consider doing anything rebellious. I remembered Jake’s dad’s voice, the way he practically growled at me, and I was cowed into submission.
As the evening wore on, however, his threat seemed more distant. Curiosity returned, and finally I said to Jake, “Hey, let’s check out that room.”
He understood the one I meant immediately. “No, man. We’re not allowed in there. That’s the rule.”
“Why? What’s in there?”
“A bunch of Mom’s old stuff. I don’t know. Dad never let me inside.”
“I snuck in there last night.”
“You what? What did you see?”
I shrugged. “It was too dark. But it’ll be light out for a little while still. We could take another look.”
Jake was obviously intrigued, but still he wavered. “I don’t know. What if Dad finds out?”
“He won’t” I assured. Sure, he’d called me out for trespassing in his bedroom, but I’d messed with things and taken my flashlight; of course he’d known. If we didn’t touch anything, he’d be none the wiser. “As long as you don’t tell.”
That hooked him. A minute later, we were standing outside the door. It opened easier this time. I stood back from the opening and peered into the darkness. Then, I switched on my flashlight.
It was weird. A bit of sunlight from outside got in just fine, but my artificial light did nothing. It was swallowed by the room. Fortunately, it was still early enough in the evening for the daylight to be effective. I could see furniture: a nightstand, a small bed, a dresser. There was a vanity pushed against one wall, and I knew immediately my theory about the mirror was correct. I shone my light at it, and the beam bounced back at me, just as it had done the previous night.
There seemed to be nothing wrong with the room, aside from the strange light behavior, so I stepped inside. What was the big deal? Why didn’t Jake’s dad want us coming in here?
“Wait,” Jake said. “I don’t like this.”
“It’s just a boring old room,” I said.
Jake shook his head. “No. I’m not going in. You shouldn’t either. I…I’ll tell my dad.”
“Don’t be a snitch,” I whined, but Jake was gone. I heard the front door open and shut.
Well, that was it. He was going to tell on me, and I was going to get in trouble again. May as well make the most of it.
I approached the vanity mirror, watching my reflection carefully. It wasn’t the right size or shape to explain the figure I’d seen last night, but that could’ve been because of my tears and paranoia. I smirked, pleased with my skills at rationalizing the uncanny, and my reflection smirked back. What had I been so afraid of? Nothing, that’s what.
Then, in the mirror, the door behind me swung shut.
It seemed to happen in slow motion. As I watched it close, my blood drained into my feet. My heart couldn’t pump anymore; it was frozen solid. As the opening thinned, the sunlight lost its grip, and darkness rushed from the corners. The door clicked shut, and all was black.
I wanted to die right there. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember where any of the furniture was. I couldn’t remember if the vanity was behind me or in front of me. Had I been facing the door when it closed, or had I been watching the mirror the whole time? The answer was important, because it would determine whether the figure I saw before me was my reflection or something else.
My flashlight fell from my hands, but it made no sound as it hit the invisible floor. The impact jarred it enough to kill the light, but I could still see the figure. It materialized like jelly oozing through a wall of black velvet, solidified, became a normal person standing in front of me. A woman.
I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t make my mouth work. Even if I could, a part of me knew my voice wouldn’t carry through the darkness. Instead, I just watched as the woman gave me a little smile and sat down on a floor I could only assume was still there. She was wearing a dress and an apron, and her hair was done up in a sloppy bun.
“Come help me,” she said.
The sound of her voice hurt my ears, which had started taking the utter silence for granted. I opened my mouth experimentally, most likely to say no, but nothing came out.
The woman reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a peeling knife. My eyes followed the blade as she held it in the air, then stuck it into her belly.
At that point I think I screamed—at least, my throat burned and my jaw gaped. Nothing reached my ears, which felt like they were stuffed with cotton.
The woman was making lazy cuts and jabs in her stomach, flicking blood and skin off the blade between each attack. Her face showed no pain, but there was a faraway look in her eyes. The knife began to dig deeper, and she started rocking to and fro. “Come help me.”
I tried taking a step backward, but I must have been more disoriented than I thought because instead of receding, the woman came closer. I tasted something salty, and realized tears were running down my cheeks.
Her blade was buried to the handle now. Whenever she withdrew it, blood came spurting out, and other stuff with it. Her head was nodding erratically, making a hollow thud as it knocked into something that was invisible in the darkness.
I wanted to run so badly, but I was worried that any attempt to move would just bring me closer to the horror in front of me, so I stayed put.
“Won’t you come help me?” With each word, blood trickled out of the woman’s mouth. Her clothes were soaked with it, and still her knife flicked in and out. Her hands were starting to tremble. “Please? You won’t help me? Come. I’ll show you how.”
She abruptly lurched forward and began crawling. A flood of dark wetness poured from the wound in her belly, and I was aware of a moistness creeping toward my feet. I was definitely screaming now, even though I wasn’t making a sound.
“See, like this,” the woman was saying. She took one of my hands in her own—her fingers were spongy and wet—and placed the knife in it. The handle was made of wood, soggy with blood. The blade was pointed at my stomach. “See? Just flick your wrist, like this—”
There was a commotion behind me, and I was yanked backward. The woman shrieked, and the last thing I saw before being pulled from the room was a burst of blood exploding from her mouth.
Jake’s dad set me down on the floor outside and studied me carefully. His eyes went to the knife in my hand, which he snatched and tossed back into the room before slamming the door shut.
He called my parents that night. He said he couldn’t stand to have me around another day and demanded they come back early. They were furious, of course, and I was grounded. Whatever. If that was all it took to get me out of Jake’s house and away from that awful room, then I got off easy.